Martin Scorsese’s foray into epic crime stories is far from a novelty, considering his illustrious career, packed with depictions of criminals in films like “Mean Streets,” “Goodfellas,” “Casino,” “The Departed,” and “The Irishman.” However, in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Scorsese is redefining the narrative. This time, he doesn’t solely focus on the malefactors; he delves deep into the lives of the victims as well. It’s a sprawling canvas that propels the master filmmaker’s creativity to new heights. While the movie’s runtime approaches three and a half hours, it genuinely justifies that investment. “Killers of the Flower Moon” stands as one of the crowning achievements of 2023, adding yet another feather to Scorsese’s well-adorned cap.
The film’s unique appeal lies in its dual perspective. While it dedicates substantial time to the perpetrators and masterminds behind the heinous acts, it equally immerses itself in the world of the indigenous people systematically being targeted. Scorsese compels the audience to bear witness, repeatedly, to the atrocities unfolding before them, evoking a desperate longing for someone, anyone, to take action. When the law eventually intervenes towards the climax, it’s a relief, but the delay is infuriating. By trimming the procedural elements, Scorsese crafts a haunting work that resonates as powerfully as any of his previous masterpieces.
Adapted from David Grann’s book, the film recounts a series of murders inflicted upon the Osage tribe in the 1920s. Following their relocation to Oklahoma, they discover valuable oil reserves beneath their land, catapulting them into immense wealth. Initially, the white inhabitants of Osage County conspire to swindle them, but Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), fresh from the war, is soon privy to a sinister plot orchestrated by his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro). Hale, affectionately known as King, is a revered figure in the community, masquerading as a benevolent leader, yet secretly orchestrating a plan to murder several members of the tribe. Ernest, a simple man, becomes unwittingly entangled in this deadly web when King persuades him to court and eventually wed Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), a close family friend, and a woman of substantial wealth.
As the number of Osage victims grows, the living members of the tribe begin to raise their voices. While initial attempts yield little, Mollie’s paranoia escalates as she witnesses several members of her family fall victim to the sinister plot. She eventually seeks help from the government, leading to the dispatch of Tom White (Jesse Plemons), an early representative of what would later become the F.B.I., to investigate the crimes. The historical outcome is well-documented, yet Scorsese’s portrayal injects an element of raw emotion. It’s a hypnotic experience, even at this extended length.
The triumvirate of Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and Lily Gladstone delivers outstanding performances. Jesse Plemons, though appearing late in the narrative, also leaves an impression. DiCaprio, in particular, takes on a role unlike any he’s tackled before, relishing the complexity of his character. As a simple man torn by internal conflicts, his portrayal resonates through the conflicts in his eyes as he becomes embroiled in increasingly nefarious deeds. De Niro, on the other hand, exudes a sinister charm, portraying a cunning community leader who operates as a mob boss in the shadows. His performance is a powerful return to form. Gladstone, playing a role that involves keen observation, brings depth and authenticity to her character, evoking feelings of distrust, fear, and profound tragedy. Her work is what lingers with the audience long after the credits roll. The extensive supporting cast includes Tantoo Cardinal, Brendan Fraser, Jason Isbell, John Lithgow, Cara Jade Myers, Scott Shepherd, and many more.
Scorsese, who co-wrote the script with Eric Roth in addition to directing, continues to demonstrate his mastery of the craft. The film showcases the brilliance of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, the expertise of editor Thelma Schoonmaker, the haunting score by the late Robbie Robertson, and the meticulous work in costumes by Jacqueline West and production design by Jack Fisk. Roth and Scorsese infuse the narrative with the director’s signature blend of violence and dark humor while also exploring themes of injustice. The film culminates in one of the most powerful endings of the year, and arguably the finest conclusion in Scorsese’s illustrious career.
In terms of Scorsese’s oeuvre, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is poised to take a seat among his top works. It artfully combines reflection on his earlier crime narratives with a fresh perspective, allowing it to grow and evolve in its own right. This film possesses enduring quality, leaving an indelible impact.
Regarding the Oscars, it’s highly probable that “Killers of the Flower Moon” will be irresistible to voters, especially in terms of nominations. Categories like Best Picture, Best Director (for Scorsese), Best Actor (for DiCaprio), Best Actress (for Gladstone), Best Supporting Actor (for De Niro), and Best Adapted Screenplay all seem well within reach. The film is also poised to perform strongly in technical categories, though the full extent of its success remains to be seen. A double-digit nomination count is well within reach, though actual wins are another matter. Nevertheless, it’s evident that this film is the real deal. Prepare for a lengthy cinematic journey, but also anticipate one of the year’s finest films, without a doubt.